The challenge of reinventing the PC: Ultimate Coder

Your PC is an amazing peace of kit, it’s amazing because no other computing platform is as versatile and no other platform is so open for innovation. You can buy hardware for it from thousands of vendors, you can hook it up to just about any display or input device and you can make it do just about anything. While maybe no longer being the latest buzzword, the combination of screen, mouse and keyboard, is still the best way to be productive, get a headshot or to create the next software wonder. Whatever cool mobile app or console game you think is the hot stuff, it was conceived on a PC. If we could only choose one computing platform it would have be the PC, for the simple fact that no other platform could exist without the PC.

But all is not well in the PC world.

If it was, then how is it that my Amiga 1200 was able to boot from power on to desktop in less than 2 seconds when it takes the better part of a minute to do so on my i7 Machine with a 500meg+ a second SSD? How is it that when I type in text in to a modern word processor it sometimes lags behind when it didn't on the Commodore 64? How is it that it takes a minute to search for a file on my PC hard drive when Google can search the entire internet in a fraction of a second? How is it that Facebook remembers every click I make, but my own computer can’t remember where I left off the movie I was watching last night? While Intel and others have done an amazing job shrinking down processor wiring down to the thickness of a few atoms and making processors able to do billions of operations per second, we as software developers haven't really done our part making the software.

While the tablet or phone operating systems have yet to become platforms where I can get proper work done, or do complex tasks like say having two browser windows open on the same screen, I think the PC needs more attention. It should not be seen as technology of the past but as a starting point for where we want to go. What we really want is to have the openness and flexibility of the PC everywhere. Our phones, tablets, laptops, workstations, TVs, even walls should all be PCs so that we can freely move software, files and tasks from one to the other and never let the hardware form factor dictate what software we can run on the device. What we should have is software that transcends the physical hardware.

The interfaces we have on the PCs aren’t really adapted well to work on a wide variety of devices. While we want to keep the open nature of PC hardware, we need to change our software design so that the desktop of the future would no longer be familiar to someone using a Xerox Alto in 1973. We need a new paradigm for the PC.

My goal with this challenge is to show what the PC could be, how we can develop software that can run well on a range of different hardware setups, from screen resolutions to input devices. Intel has provided me with some great new hardware, and I intend to show just how great PC software can be for these devises, if we only spent the time to develop it rather than just focusing on closed platforms. There are many things to improve but with only 7 weeks I will focus on building a framework for graphical interfaces. I will apply this work on at least 3 different applications. A game, a data visualizer and creative tool.

I will be writing an open source software layer that makes it easy for any developers to make use of the diverse hardware available to us, and makes it possible for hardware vendors to experiment with new hardware configurations, without forcing us as developers to rewrite our applications in order to take advantage of them. If we are going to consider how to write applications that are independent of hardware, we first need to consider the types of usage scenarios and pros and cons of different input devices and how they should be supported.

If we are going to write applications that can run on almost any form factor with any kind of input device, we need to think about the limitations and opportunities it creates. To begin we should probably assume that the device has some kind of pointing input device, so we want to create an API that unifies the concept of pointing, disregarding if its multi-touch, a mouse, a Wii remote style device or (god forbid) a track pad. If we are stuck with a non-pointing input device like a joy pad, we need to figure out a way to make applications useful anyway. We should also figure out a way to support an "escape" with every interface. This could be something like the windows key, or the iOS home button, something that can always be accessed to connect with the operating system. We also want to support very wide range of display sizes and resolutions. All the way from your phone to large displays that may cover and entire wall. Large enough displays means that we want multiuser support too. That creates some interesting challenges since we can no longer assume that two multi touch events are triggered by the same person trying to accomplish the same task. We also must consider that the user many not be able to reach all parts of the screen, so we can’t have any static menus or buttons, like a start menu, taskbar, dock or Apple menu. We will need to solve most of these things with popup menus. We should obviously support a keyboard, but we should also provide some kind of pointing based fall back for typing.

To display our interface we should not assume that the pixel resolution in anyway corresponds to the size of the interface. All interface elements should therefore be vectorized and scalable. We also want to support an interface that takes in to account the users view angle, this means the interface must be 3D. If we build a 3D interface we can easily support stereoscopic displays, head tracking, head mounted displays or augmented reality applications.

This first week I will dedicate to building an API that will be able to provide application developers with all these things and also let hardware vendors make drivers for it. Next week I will talk about how I go about doing this.

It’s going to be a fun ride!



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